China Punk | James Bollen

by Liz on September 22, 2011

in Art & Design,Travel

Li Youran inside the People's University, 1999

James Bollen is a Shanghai-based British photographer whose work was shown this year at SH Contemporary, one of Shanghai’s most talked about art fairs. He recently discovered my blog, and I thank him for this, because if he didn’t, I may never have had the privilege of seeing his portfolio online.

Bollen, while technically not an Asian contemporary artist, represents a growing community of expatriates and foreigners whose insights into China are enriching the larger narrative of contemporary Asia. Bollen’s medium is the quiet lens of photography, and his stage is urban China. And even by the standards of the crowded, Flickr-driven photosphere of today, the results are simply sublime, because as you may see for yourself, Bollen is no ordinary photographer.

Inside the Forbidden City, 1997

Urban Abstract

Ji'an Road, Luwan (All photos: James Bollen)

I’m still not sure when photography is just photography, and when it crosses over into an art form, and no doubt the debate rages on, somewhere within the realms of secluded, ivory towers. But recently I was struck by an interesting idea about the medium, and it’s stayed with me since. I think photography is striking not because it’s necessarily an art form, but its grasp of life is so final, and so absolute, that it reminds our absent-minded selves that life is the ultimate art form. We’ve just forgotten to look around. The best photographers know this very well, and using what they know, they’re able to give us the world anew.

I love Bollen’s photographs because they’re not just beautiful to look at, but because they serve as a valuable documentation of a decade in the life of China. He’s seen dramatic changes in Beijing, where he says many of the places he’s photographed “no longer exist.” He documented the nascent punk scene in China’s capital back in 1999, and it’s good that he did. The Scream Club, a popular punk hangout, was demolished and replaced by a bus depot so that “there’s nothing physical left to remind anybody those places existed in Beijing.” Save, perhaps, for Bollen’s photographs, which gently remind the observer of China’s forgotten moments as the country now races to a “glorious new past.”

Bollen’s impressions manifest themselves in his city walks, so he keeps his equipment light and portable, which includes a 35mm rangefinder, an iPhone, and a Rolleiflex3.5f. Equal parts spontaneous chronicle and unofficial history, Bollen’s work is an archive that I’m sure we’ll revisit several times over, and each time we do, we do it to realize how much China has transformed, mutated, or as is sometimes the case, just stayed where we last left off, always ready to continue a never ending conversation.

Outside the Drum Tower underground station, 1997

Alley running past All For One bar, Sanlitun South street, 1999

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